Posted in Film, Writing

Does Your Protagonist Need to be Likable?


Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!


I’ve been such a huge fan of Pixar’s feature films from the beginning — I saw Toy Story opening weekend in theaters when I was eleven and completely fell in love — that their movies have always been must-see events. I don’t even need to be familiar with what the new movie is — whatever they put out will be worth the money. I list among my favorite movies ever Up, Finding Nemo, and the Toy Story trilogy, particularly Toy Story 3, which left me weeping on the floor like a little baby.

After an inexplicable detour into crass commercial filmmaking with the dreadful Cars 2, Pixar returned to form in 2012 with Brave, a supremely entertaining combination of drama, comedy, and magic. I knew this film would be enchanting, but I wasn’t prepared for how funny it would be. The ads didn’t make the plot of the film clear, but the turn of events that take place are unexpected and hilarious. But of course, as to be expected, the film is moving and winning, ending on an uplifting note that, while a bit predictable, works wonders.

Brave is noteworthy for being the first Pixar movie to feature a female character in the lead — which, considering this was their thirteenth production, was overdue. 2012 had been the year of the strong female warrior — think Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games — and the strong-willed ginger Merida made a great addition to the list. While this story may be set a long time ago, her personality and values couldn’t be more modern day. She’s a great role model for young girls, and even the boys are apt to fall in love with her wit and spirit.

Visually, as to be expected, the film looks gorgeous — so much is set outside in the Scottish countryside, with overhead shots of meadows and forests, and ferocious bears hiding in the trees. I was also in awe of something subtle but important — Merida’s long curly red hair. I remember watching a special on the original Toy Story years ago where the animators said that they had to apply the hair on Andy, Sid, and the others one hair at a time. It’s amazing to see how much the characters’ hair design have evolved over the years.

Although Brave isn’t on the same level of Pixar’s best — it’s a little too predictable and cutesy at times, with a plot point involving a witch that seemed to be lifted out of Fairy Tale Storytelling 101 — it’s one of the company’s funniest movies. I probably laughed more in Brave than I have in any Pixar film since Finding Nemo. While the mother-daughter relationship in Brave is certainly poignant, there’s no emotional moment in the film that comes close to the opening sequence of Up, or the final twenty minutes of Toy Story 3. The movie is fast-paced and fun, and that’s enough this time around.

Watching Like a Writer

I firmly believe a fiction writer could spend a few weeks studying the storytelling structure of all the best Pixar movies and learn a lot about how to tell a great yarn. Pixar has created one memorable film after another, and yet they never feel overly similar to each other, never like there’s a clear formula to the third-act structure. But one thing Pixar movies do all share is unique, compelling, likable protagonists, especially Merida in Brave. This got me to thinking about how important it actually is for your protagonist to be likable. Is there such thing as a successful film with an unlikable protagonist, particularly one aimed at children? I’d like to think such a thing is possible, but I’m not sure.


Look at your current work-in-progress. How likable is your protagonist? Could a reader potentially find him or her unlikable? Why or why not?

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